Why Tolkien’s Beowulf Matters

When the news broke that J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf would finally be published this May, fans of Tolkien’s fantasy joined scholars of medieval literature in rejoicing. There had been rumors for years that it might soon be published since its rediscovery in 2003, but as the years passed, rumor threatened to become myth. Nearly 90 years had passed since Tolkien translated it, and given his estate’s tight grip on his documents, it seemed that the translation might never be published — and now, over four decades after his death, Tolkien fans will have a new piece of his work to enjoy.

It might be easy to categorize this along with other posthumous finds — such as the recent discovery of lost poems by Douglas Adams or lost recordings by the Beatles. The joy is like finding money you had forgotten about in a jacket pocket; it feels like a gift of something you’ve always had, and is in some way all the sweeter for it.

Unlike those other finds, though, this one is IMPORTANT. I do not wish to diminish the joy in finding a new Adams poem, but realistically very little will change about the way we understand Adams, the Beatles, or any other art by these finds. In fact, I would argue that is true for most of the other posthumous texts of Tolkien himself, such as The Children of Húrin or The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. These were wonderful to have, but in the grand scheme of things they aren’t particularly important.

Beowulf is different. Although this might be hard to believe in 2014, a century ago the poem was not generally well-regarded. When scholars looked at the poem, they found it to be a poor imitation of the great classical epics, and mostly interesting for study as a cultural artifact that told us something about Germanic culture, but not really as great literature. Beowulf as a hero was not as interesting as Achilles or Aeneas, he just goes around killing monsters, and at the best it might be a kind of muddled Christian allegory. In other words, the consensus was mostly that it sucked.

Then in 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien came and tore off the arm of the academic world with the publication of his address, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” (You can read it for free here). In a lecture that has Tolkien’s recognizable wit and humor interlaced with deep scholarship, Tolkien argued that the critics were all focusing on the wrong things. Of course Beowulf isn’t a great classical epic; it’s not an epic at all. Instead, it is more akin to the Viking sagas and elegies, so it’s rather like complaining that your watermelon doesn’t have a strong enough banana flavor. And those monsters aren’t some kind of distraction from an examination of the character of the hero Beowulf; they are the point. In many ways, the book is about the monsters more than the hero.

Basically what happened at this point was the entire academic establishment collectively smacked itself on the forehead and said, “Well, duh. Why didn’t I think of that?!” Beowulf went from being this awkward poem that was too long to ignore even though it might deserve it, to being at the center of Old English literature, even eclipsing Caedmon’s Hymn. Many people have argued that Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is the most influential thing ever written about Beowulf, but I would go further; I think Tolkien essentially saved Beowulf. If not for him, the poem might have languished for another century or two. And now, we have a translation of Beowulf that Tolkien did a decade before saving it. In that translation, we will likely be able to see how he grappled with it early on.

Yeah, OK, but how is that important for everyone who isn’t a medieval language nerd? Tolkien’s Beowulf is likely to become the standard translation that students read in high schools and universities, and I suspect that change will happen fast. For many years poet Burton Raffel’s translation ruled, but about a dozen years ago it was replaced by Seamus Heaney’s translation. And truthfully, Seamus Heaney’s version became the standard more because of his celebrity than because of the quality of the translation — even versions intended for students (like Edward Risden’s great translation) can’t quite demand the kind of attention of a Nobel Prize winner, regardless of accuracy.

Why is Tolkien’s Beowulf a contender right out of the gate? First, publisher HarperCollins has the juice to make that happen, not just with big marketing bucks, but also by putting Tolkien’s version in every relevant anthology they make. Second, Tolkien has got the scholarly chops that make it hard to question his translation choices. There will probably be words, phrases, or entire lines that others will quibble over, but it will be the kind of quibbles where people will say, “Hmmm, I would have done that differently,” not “Hey, that’s just wrong!” Tolkien knew his stuff about language in general, and understood Beowulf like nobody else. This translation starts off backed by a scholarly reputation that even the super-respected Burton Raffel can’t match.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that no one else can match Tolkien’s celebrity. Seriously, can you imagine anything more helpful to a high school teacher than being able to say a text was translated by Tolkien? We will go from this …

Teacher: In this class, we’ll be reading the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.
Student: *Yawn*
Teacher: Hey, this was translated by Seamus Heaney. You know, the Nobel Prize winning poet who wrote “Digging.”
Student: *pulls out a cell phone and starts texting*

… to this.

Teacher: In this class, we’ll be reading the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.
Student: *Yawn*
Teacher: Hey, this was translated by JRR Tolkien. You know, the guy who wrote The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Student: *Looks up from their cell phone suspiciously* Really? Well, what’s it about? It’s not going to be like A Separate Peace, is it?
Teacher: Oh, it’s about a guy who goes around fighting sea monsters, trolls, and dragons.
Student: Yeah, but maybe it’s like Crime and Punishment, which start out with an axe murder, but then just turns into a bunch of talking.

Teacher: Nope. He’s pretty much killing stuff the whole time. And when they aren’t killing stuff, they’re partying and talking about great battles.
Student: My entire life until this point has been a sham. I now know my true destiny … to read Beowulf.

My prediction: In the future, young people will mistakenly believe Tolkien wrote Beowulf as his own work of fiction. And I for one look forward to the day when I am regularly correcting that point on my students’ papers.